Collateral Damage

“Everybody just shut up.” hissed the sergeant. Our squad had been bickering over little nothings. We were tired, hot, sticky with sweat and tired, not to mention anxious. We were on a short patrol, perhaps a klick out from the tactical operations center. It was our job to make sure that Charlie wasn’t snooping the perimeter looking to throw us a surprise party. Charlie being the Viet Cong. When they threw a party, it was bad to be the recipient of the surprise. We weren’t really expecting to find anything. The brush wasn’t thick and didn’t offer a lot of cover. There were a few trees and I chose one to lean on.

My back against it, I slid to my butt and lit a cigarette. The sarge was looking at his map and called for a break, saying smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. I had a couple of packs of C ration Lucky Strikes, packed somewhere in the mid-1940s. The packs had four cigarettes in them and came with each of the ration boxes. I was immediately assailed by three other smokers in our ten man patrol. So much for that pack. Only jerks wouldn’t share. It was a sure bet that the situation would or had been reversed, and it all came out pretty much even in the end. At least, that’s how most of us saw it so we shared. The smoke helped keep away some of the annoying bugs that constantly buzzed around, getting into the corners of the eyes or crawling into noses and ears. This area was thick with the damn things. They didn’t seem to bite, they were just really bothersome. The non-smokers crowded in to take advantage of the repellent properties of our vice, fanning the air with their hands to spread the smoke around. At another time and place they’d fan the smoke in the air in annoyance.

The sarge asked if anyone knew for sure where we were in relation to the TOC, the area we were guarding. He’d been studying the map, turning it one way and then another and looked around trying to identify features depicted on the map. Understand that the maps we had were pretty crude. I’m not sure if the army was trying to be cryptic in case the maps fell into the wrong hands or if good maps simply weren’t available. It didn’t matter, the end result was they were often more confusing than helpful. The only people we knew of with good maps were artillary spotters and the cannon cockers that shot on their word. It amazed me how they could drop a round within a few feet of a target from a few miles away –and I was initially trained as an artillary man. After a few minutes our cigarettes had been snuffed and we had a general agreement about where we were.

We’d just formed up our line again when literally all of us noticed the fleeting shadow off to our nine o’clock. Just a glimpse of black hustling from one low bush to another. All of us hit the ground, taking up firing positions to either side of our path. It wouldn’t be unusual for Charlie to reveal himself and get your attention directed in one direction while he hit at you from the opposite. We lay there sweating, our eyes trying to develop xrays. We all felt the same way; we wanted to pitch some fire in the direction that we saw the movement, but the rules were that we could not fire unless fired on first. It was a hard and fast rule that we obeyed unswervingly. “Who’s got the M-79?” whispered the sergeant. I admitted that I did. The M-79 is a grenade launcher. It looks like a single tube, break open shotgun, its barrel about two inches in diameter. “Send one down.” ordered the sergeant.

Thoonk! The M-79 fired a round that climbed in a high arc and fell perfectly into the bush we’d seen the shadow disappear behind. Whoomp! Dirt, smoke and bits of foliage fluttered and hung in the air, but there was no movement. We all lay there for what seemed like a long time, but was actually just a minute or so and then the sarge had us move in a picket line toward the settling detritus. We searched all around but found no sign of anyone –not even footprints where grasses were stepped on. We took about fifteen minutes to make sure there was no one around before reforming our line to continue our patrol. It took only another couple of minutes before we again saw a shadow flicker from bush to bush. All of us dropped again, but this time a few of the guys opened up with their M-16 rifles on full auto. Our sergeant led us towards where the target was last seen, but again we found no sign of anyone. Someone said “Man, this is bullshit.” Nobody disagreed. The heat of the day seemed to be getting worse, and our moods were getting worse right along with it. We knew there was someone out there, but whoever it was was a master of deception, appearing and then disappearing quickly.

The sergeant redeployed the patrol. This time he ran us in an L shape rather than a line. If that peckerwood showed himself again, we’d have two angles to spot him. We advanced slowly. I was at the tail end of the line, with guys lining up on me to my left. We’d been moving for about a hundred yards when one of the guys to my left screamed and cut loose a burst from his M-16. The rest of us immediately sprayed the area and were rewarded with a keening scream. The sarge yelled for us to hold fire and move in. We all closed on where we’d heard the scream from and found our nemesis. It was a wild pig. Vietnamese pigs were gray with bristly black hair. This one was about the size of a German Shepherd and it lay on its side, hyperventilating. The sergeant pulled his .45 caliber automatic and leaned in and shot the pig in the head, putting it out of its misery.

“Ah, jeez.” said one of the guys. Those two syllables pretty much summed up our thoughts. We felt bad for the pig. Wild, it was just trying to eke out a living. It had managed to dodge its predators only to get wasted by nervous young men whose job it was to play predator and prey a few steps up the food chain. What was so depressing was that its death served no purpose. It had died for anxiety; both its own and ours. We left the pig laying there and went on with the patrol. I know that the wild lets nothing go to waste and that the pig fed a number of species –although I don’t like dwelling on which ones. Oddly, I take some relief that it wasn’t one of my grenades that dispatched the pig, but I don’t feel innocent either. I do accept that the pig died because we were frightened men in a war.

This gives me a perspective on myself; in terms of the belief that my cancer was a product of the war. Like the pig, I’m a victim of unexpected developments. It’s going on half a century since that day my patrol shot the pig. It was forty-six years ago and I might not have ever thought about the pig again, except for my cancer and the way it makes me think about mortality. That pig and I are kindred spirits, each of us a victim of the war by way of collateral damage.